The following is an article from the book Uncle John's Canoramic Bathroom Reader.
You’ve heard of Puff the Magic Dragon; Smaug, the dragon in The Hobbit; and Norbert, the dragon in the Harry Potter books. Here’s a look at some dragons you may not have heard of.
Stories of enormous, terrifying reptilian beasts have been part of folklore around the world for longer than the written record can tell us. And while the beasts in these stories vary greatly, they have several traits in common: they are virtually always depicted as having snakelike or lizardlike bodies, they’re almost always covered or partially covered in scales, and they often (but not always) have wings. Here are some of the most historically significant dragonlike beasts ever recorded.
One of history’s earliest recorded mythical creatures with dragonlike characteristics, this ancient Egyptian god, also called the “Evil Lizard,” was the god of darkness and evil. Depictions of Apep vary. In the Egyptian Book of the Dead, which dates to 2100 B.C., he is described as a giant serpent, more than 50 cubits (about 75 feet) long, with a head made of flint. In some paintings he looks like a long skinny snake; in others he is part snake, part crocodile. Yet other images show him with a large, stout body; a long tail; and the arms, hands, and face of a human. He was also said to have magical powers, including the ability to hypnotize other gods with his gaze— very similar to a characteristic later attributed to other dragons.
(Image credit: British Museum)
Another of the earliest dragonlike monsters, this beast is in one of the oldest known pieces of literature, the Epic of Gilgamesh, found etched into clay tablets in the ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh. The tablets, which date to the eighteenth century B.C., tell the stories of Gilgamesh, the legendary warrior king of Uruk, a city in Sumer. In one tale, Gilgamesh sets out to kill the guardian of the Cedar Forest, a terrifying beast known as Humbaba. Humbaba is described as having the head and paws of a lion, the horns of a bull, the claws of a vulture, a body covered in scales, and a long tail which ended in the head of a snake. He has magical powers, including the ability to change the shape of his face and that most dragonlike characteristic: the ability to breathe fire.
KAMPE, THE SHE-DRAGON
(Image credit: DeviantART member ropen7789)
Ancient Greek mythology tells of literally hundreds of dragonlike creatures, going back to at least the eighth century B.C. In fact, the Greeks gave us the root of the word “dragon”— drakon, their name for these monsters. An interesting twist on this: the drakainae, or “she-dragons,” of which Kampe was one of the most bizarre. She had the head and upper torso of a beautiful woman and the lower body of a serpent. Her hair was made of venomous, spitting snakes; long, curved claws grew out from her hands; her feet were made of more spitting snakes; the heads of dozens of snarling beasts— including lions, wild boars, and dogs— sprouted from around her waist; and she had the huge upward-curving tail of a scorpion. With dark wings that grew from her shoulders, Kampe was prone to flying around, shooting sparks from her eyes, and causing storms (and being generally unfriendly).
Dragons make several appearances in the Bible. The book of Revelation, the final book of the New Testament, even refers to Satan as “the dragon, that ancient serpent.” In another instance the Apostle John describes seeing “an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns.” He says this dragon’s body “resembled a leopard, but had feet like those of a bear and a mouth like that of a lion.” (In the Old Testament, some angels are even depicted as dragonlike beings. The seraphim, meaning literally “burning ones,” are regularly depicted as accompanying God in the visions of various biblical characters and are described as huge, six-winged flying serpents.)
THE INDIAN DRAGON
In the second century A.D., a Roman scholar named Aelian wrote On the Nature of Animals, a collection of stories relating to animals. Among the stories was one called the “Indian Dragon,” about a beast said to live in the exotic faraway land of India. Aelian’s description of the dragon’s hunting technique (from a 1958 translation by Alwyn Faber Scholfield):
In India, I am told, the Elephant and the Drakon are the bitterest enemies. Now Elephants draw down the branches of trees and feed upon them. And the Drakones, knowing this, crawl up the trees and envelop the lower half of their bodies in the foliage, but the upper portion extending to the head they allow to hang loose like a rope. And the Elephant approaches to pluck the twigs, whereat the Drakon springs at its eyes and gouges them out. Next the Drakon winds round the Elephant’s neck, and as it clings to the tree with the lower part of its body, it tightens its hold with the upper part and strangles the Elephant with an unusual and singular noose.
Another work of the era tells of Indian dragon hunters who are able to lull a dragon to sleep by placing special stones outside the beast’s lair. The hunters then kill the sleeping dragon with their axes, decapitate it… and remove magical gems from inside its head.
THE SERPENT OF CARTHAGE
In the year 256 B.C., Roman general Marcus Atilius Regulus was leading an army against the city-state of Carthage in North Africa when they set up camp on the banks of the Bagradas River. Some of the men went to get water from the river and, according to a legend repeated— and believed— for centuries, several of the soldiers were promptly devoured, armor and all, by an enormous water serpent. (Many of mythology’s most famous dragons are associated with rivers, lakes, and oceans.) The creature was said to be more than 100 feet long, covered in scales that repelled spears, with huge red glowing eyes and poisonous breath that made the soldiers go mad. Another interesting feature: while it had no legs, it had a network of ribs that it used to walk on land. According to the legend, the serpent was finally conquered and its skin taken to Rome, where it was displayed in the Roman senate for more than 100 years… until it disappeared sometime in the second century B.C.
ST. GEORGE’S DRAGON
A familiar motif in dragon tales: a brave knight saves a damsel (often a princess) from a dragon. This one revolves around St. George, a Roman soldier who was executed around A.D. 303 for his Christian beliefs, leading to his canonization nearly 200 years later. Over the following centuries, St. George was somehow transformed into a dragon slayer. In the most popular version of the story, which became a best-seller of sorts all over Europe starting in the thirteenth century, brave St. George is wandering through Libya when he comes across a king who is about to offer his daughter, the princess, to the local dragon. Normally the dragon, which is more than 50 feet long and lives in a nearby lake, is happy with the two sheep the people offer it daily— but they ran out of sheep. St. George attacks and wounds the dragon, puts it on a leash, and has the princess lead the dragon into town. There he promises to kill the dragon— if the king and all his people agree to become Christians. They agree, and St. George chops off the dragon’s head.
The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Canoramic Bathroom Reader. The latest annual edition of Uncle John’s wildly successful series features fascinating history, silly science, and obscure origins, plus fads, blunders, wordplay, quotes, and a few surprises
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